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  • Moises de Souza and Dean Karalekas

The Strange Case of Taiwan's Ex-Presidents: Post-Presidential Activism That Does Not Stop at the Water’s Edge

Unlike their counterparts from other countries, Taiwanese presidents have remained politically active after leaving office, leading to a potentially interesting dynamic moving forward between the China-friendly Ma Ying-jeou and soon-to-be ex-President Tsai Ing-wen who is viewed as a supporter for Taiwanese sovereignty.

Photo credits: Reuters

When Taiwan’s former President Ma Ying-jeou made the above declaration during his re-election campaign in 2012, he was not only invoking his family’s ancestral ties to China, he was also prefiguring a post-presidential mission that would eventually give him a renewed sense of purpose. His recent  visit to China that included a meeting with Xi Jinping and hobnobbing with Communist leaders, much to the chagrin of the ruling party back home in the Republic of China (ROC), confirms Ma’s dedication to the idea of Taiwan-China inseparability.

 

Ma Ying-jeou’s devotion to nudging Taiwan ever closer into Beijing’s orbit stands in stark contrast to incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen’s commitment to the cause of preserving the island’s sovereignty and progressive democracy on an increasingly polarised and volatile global stage. It underscores what may prove to be a critical juncture in the way Taiwan’s diplomatic landscape evolves; introducing post-presidential activism as a potential critical tool. These contrasting periods of heightened tensions and cautious rapprochement, in which Tsai’s and Ma’s respective presidencies stand out as emblematical, are a seemingly inevitable by-product of Taiwan’s new practice of peaceful, democratic transition of power between political parties.


Unlike more mature democracies that have developed a tradition of former leaders gracefully slipping into a quiet, non-partisan retreat into private life, in Taiwan, ex-presidents have not navigated the delicate balance between retirement and continued political activism very deftly. But this is certainly the case for Ma Ying-Jeou. Since his retirement in 2016, Ma has been busy trying to reconstruct the friendly ties that characterised his administration’s diplomatic truce with Beijing. Very busy, in fact. After having his request to travel to Hong Kong denied in 2016, on the grounds of national security concerns and a law that prevents high-ranking ROC officials from traveling abroad—and particularly to China—for three (later adjusted to five) years after leaving office, Ma would embark in 2023 on a historic 12-day trip to China that, in his words, “he had looked forward to for thirty-six years.”


The first visit of a Taiwanese leader to Mainland since the end of Chinese Civil War in 1949, ostensibly, the trip was for visiting his family’s ancestral graves in Hunan province, but in reality it was designed to steal some of the thunder from a simultaneous high-profile stopover visit to the United States by President Tsai, and to reinforce the narrative that only the KMT is qualified to represent Taiwan in talks with China. In fact, less than a month after Ma’s tour, a delegation of seventeen KMT legislators also traveled to China to “break the ice” with representatives from Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) and Chinese Communist Party.


While controversies abound surrounding Ma’s last trip to China—sold as a way to remind “younger generations to learn from the past to resolve disputes peacefully,” there is a critical element in his dedication to keeping warm relations with China to which the DPP should pay attention. Ma’s form of engaging in “travel activism” is a perfect template for post-presidential engagement to enhance Taiwan’s international visibility. For the first time, the DPP might have the right person for this job: incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen.


The United States experience has demonstrated that former presidents of democratic regimes can be extraordinary diplomatic assets. To keep the curse of oblivion at bay, these men and women after years in office offer a unique expertise with access to circles that the presidency would prevent them from leveraging. Jimmy Carter is always a case in point in this regard. Though the former peanut farmer from Georgia divided opinions while in office, the dignity with which he conducted his post-presidency activism has been lauded from both sides of the aisle, with many considering him the greatest ex-president in the history of the United States. Similarly, then President George W. Bush would enlist the aid of two former presidents—his father George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton—to coordinate a humanitarian relief campaign in support the victims of the 2004 Tsunami tragedy in Southeast Asia. In its unique international condition, Taiwan would certainly benefit from such an advocate. The problem, however, has been the profile of its ex-presidents.


Although Lee Teng-hui was chairman of the KMT, the party responsible for 38 years of martial law, he is hailed for having led Taiwan in the transition to a democratic regime. He was the ROC’s first Taiwan-born president, as well as having briefly been a member of the Communist Party in the 1940s and later becoming a Presbyterian widely admired in Japan. Having obtained his PhD at Cornell in 1968, Lee was the first ROC president to visit the United Stated when he travelled there to deliver a speech at his alma mater in 1995. Lee’s heart was in Japan, though. He once said he was Japanese until 22 years old, having studied in Kyoto, and making nine trips to Japan after his retirement from politics.


Despite being considered the spiritual leader of Taiwan’s democracy, he is a controversial figure at home. In his own post-presidential activism, Lee was outspoken about supporting Japan’s regional role and its importance in maintaining peace in Asia. Lee even opined that the Diaoyutai Islands—fought over by Beijing, Taipei, and Tokyo—rightly belong to Japan, rather than defending the ROC claims in the region. In many ways, Lee's post-retirement activism is similar to Ma's in one aspect: both were aimed at improving relationships with a neighbouring country. However, while Ma is focusing on warming ties with China, Lee’s efforts were directed towards Japan, with both forgetting Taiwan's interests at the centre of their concerns.


After Lee, the next ROC president was Chen Shui-bian, once a poor student of maritime law who would go on to became the DPP’s first president, from 2000-2008. He would certainly have been a better fit to promote Taiwanese democracy abroad. By all accounts, Chen was a hero. The fierce attorney for the opposition movement in the 1980s, he was jailed by the KMT regime for a year, and would later see his wife brutally run over—twice—by a tractor under suspicious circumstances; an assault that left her paralysed from the waist down. Chen’s presidency was situated in that liminal state between a period of corrupt, one-party rule and functioning democracy, and Chen himself was not immune to the corruptions of power. Like some tragic Shakespearean figure, his post presidency would be shaped by allegations of campaign finance dishonesty, money laundering, and dodgy dealings with Swiss banks, resulting in a life sentence in prison—later commuted to 19 years.


Based on the experiences of Lee and Chen, in many ways, Tsai Ing-wen stands as the only candidate capable of rivalling Ma Ying-jeou’s pro-China activism, and once she is freed from the shackles constraining what a sitting ROC president unscathed, she has the potential to be a strong voice indeed. Tsai has consistently offered a moderate but unwavering commitment to the cause of Taiwan’s sovereignty, and Beijing will have tremendous problems preventing her from traveling and speaking even more freely as an ex-president. Moreover, as Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai is an inspiring case of women’s empowerment shattering the glass ceilings which, during her two terms, made important progress to the cause of gender equality in Taiwan. It is hard to imagine that Western progressives, especially on university campuses throughout Europe and North America, would not flood Tsai’s inbox with invitations to speak.


The contrasting personal and presidential profiles that characterise Ma Ying-jeou’s post presidential activism, and that which potentially might shape Tsai Ing-wen’s agenda after leaving office in 2025, is just another example of the complex and multifaceted challenges and opportunities for Taiwan to secure a place in the current evolving international order. For the first time, the two most important representatives of the polarised domestic politics in Taiwan will have an international stage on which to present their views on what Taiwan represents, and on what principles the country should base its relations with China. Indeed, this is more important now than ever, given the seismic shifts taking place on the international stage—the wars in Ukraine and Israel, the demographic uncertainties in Europe, the hotly contested elections approaching in the United States, and of course the increasingly tense and sensitive relations with Beijing.


DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.

 
Authors

Moises de Souza is an Assistant Professor in Asia Pacific Studies and Course Leader of the International Relations Programme at the University of Central Lancashire, UK.


Dean Karalekas is an affiliated research fellow with the Centre of Austronesian Studies at the University of Central Lancashire and author of Civil-Military Relations in Taiwan: Identity and Transformation

 

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